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Access and Fixed Concentration

Venerable Sujivo

Transcribed by Bhikkhu Bodhisara
(slightly abridged and edited transcription)

Venerable Sujiva is a Buddhist Theravada monk who has devoted his life to the meditational aspects of the Buddha's teachings. He donned the robes shortly after his university graduation in 1975. During his monastic training he practised under several meditation masters, including the Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita. Since residing in Santisukharama (Johor, Malaysia) in the early 1980s he has conducted numerous Vipassana retreats.

(...) The other day we were talking about the four foundations of mindfulness in which the Buddha advises monks to practise mindfulness and proceed towards the attainment of jhanas. From here we will talk a bit about the samatha and vipassana practices and how to go about attaining insight and finally, liberation from samsara.

There are two approaches in the practice of meditation. The first approach is called samatha yanika. Those meditators who follow this approach practise initially by using concentration, or tranquillity, as a base. This means they practise pure tranquillity meditations like kasinas, visualisations; asubhas, meditations on loathsomeness of the body. There are forty such objects enumerated in the Visuddhimagga. They usually practise until they have reached an established state: At least to upacara samadhi, or to any of the jhanas, the blissful absorptions. When they are established here, they go further and practise vipassana.

The second type of approach is suddha vipassana yanika, the pure insight practice. Here the meditators do not go through any pure tranquillity meditation practices; neither going into the respective access concentration (called upacara jhana) nor the fixed concentration (called appana jhana). They go directly into the contemplation of mind and matter. From there they achieve vipassana momentary concentration which is equivalent to access concentration. Depending on that concentration they can also achieve magga-phala, enlightenment.

There is another type of approach: The practice where both concentration and insight are developed. The meditators are not established in either one alone but they practise alternatingly whenever one is more suitable. Usually people talk about the first two types, the pure samatha yanika and the pure vipassana yanika. You find that both these methods have been taught by the Buddha and his instructions can be found in the Tipitaka itself. For some the Buddha taught pure samatha methods before going to vipassana. Others he taught directly the Four Foundations of Mindfulness without going through the jhanas. There are many cases of both ways in the Tipitaka.

If you ask which one to practise, ideally it is the more you know the better. It's better when you know all the eight jhanas, as well as all the magga-phalas. But that would not always be possible. First, you have to find a suitable teacher who can teach you all these things. Second, of course, you need the time to do it. There are also different ways to approach it. Sometimes you may be practising vipassana for a period as we are doing here. After that, at a suitable time, one can also practise samatha. Some find that vipassana is good enough. That means they keep on practising and progressing and they do not need to go into samatha at all. Certain people find it necessary to go through some degree of samatha before they go into vipassana. But finally they will have to go to vipassana if they want to find enlightenment. In any case you have to do a lot of practice. And you need a lot of time.

Of course the emphasis of the Mahasi tradition is on vipassana. Not that the teachers are ignorant about the nature of samatha. From what I gather in Myanmar we know that many of the teachers can actually teach all the forty objects of samatha. When I was there many years ago, I asked them, "Why don't you teach me samatha? I also want to learn samatha." They said: "Vipassana is more important. After you have established vipassana well then you can do all the samatha you want." The reason is that most people do not have so much time to practise. Even if you're a monk, it doesn't mean you have all the time to practise. You get involved with other things. The important thing is that while there is the sasana period we learn what we can and as much as we can in vipassana. From what we understand, the concentration in an intensive retreat in vipassana is usually able to carry a person forward for a long time. Therefore, the emphasis here is on vipassana. As a lay person has even less time than a monk he should practise what is most important. Also according to our understanding, it is rather difficult to practise samatha successfully. Moreover, it may take some time if you are required to attain the jhanas. The object must be suitable and you also must have the potential.

Now we come to the subject of the jhanas. When you talk of jhana, it does not necessary mean something that occurs in samatha, pure tranquillity meditation, alone. It can also be applied to experiences of concentration within the vipassana meditation. Therefore there are such things as samatha jhanas, that means the jhanas or the type of absorptions that occur in pure tranquillity meditations, and vipassana jhanas, the other type of tranquillity or absorptions that occur in vipassana meditation.

What is the general idea behind the word jhana ? Jhana usually means strong concentration fixed on the object. Here we quote an excerpt from a book written by Mahasi Sayadaw, The Wheel of Dhamma:

"Jhana means closely observing an object with fixed attention. Concentrated attention given to a selected object of meditation, such as breathing for tranquillity concentration, gives rise to samatha jhana, whereas noting the characteristic nature of mind and body and contemplating on their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality brings about vipassana jhana. There are two types of jhanas : samatha jhana and vipassana jhana. Fixed attention that develops into tranquillity is called samatha jhana. Contemplating on the three characteristics constitutes vipassana jhana. There are also three kinds of samadhi (concentration): momentary, access and absorption concentration."

In another book, Sayadaw U Pandita refers to jhana as the mind sticking onto the object. It is like taking a wooden rod and poking through a leaf with it; or sticking it to something soft and then bringing it close to see what it is. So when the mind fixes on an object, it is like penetrating the object and going to it, sticking to it. This is the nature of jhana. It is a fixed, deep concentration.

Depending on how you use it, jhana can refer to different things. Just as when you say concentration, you can have wrong concentration and right concentration. It is still concentration. It refers to different experiences.

First we go into the general meaning of samatha concentration and how it occurs, as mentioned in the text. Here samatha jhana can be divided into two types. One is upacara jhana or upacara samadhi, the other one is appana jhana or appana samadhi. In this usage, jhana and samadhi mean the same thing. Appana means fixed concentration, that means the mind becomes unified, one with the object. Upacara means access, that means close to the fixed concentration.

We have to understand that upacara samadhi is very wide. There is a wide level of upacara, access concentration. It covers many experiences. And it differs with different objects. Generally, we can say a person reaches upacara samadhi when the five hindrances are inhibited. That means the concentration goes up to the level where greed, anger, sloth and torpor, worry and restlessness, and doubts do not arise. When the concentration has reached up to the level where the five hindrances are pushed aside (although they may come back after one comes out from the meditation) one can be said to have attained initial access concentration. Because the function of putting away the defilements or hindrances is satisfied, you can, if you want, go into the practice of vipassana and observe with a sharp and calm mind.

When the hindrances are put aside and are inhibited, it doesn't mean that the deepest form of access concentration has already been reached. At this moment of time you may still now and then hear sounds coming and going. At this point you can still have some idea of the form of the body. For example, if you are watching the in- and out-breaths and you come to a point where the hindrances are not there and the mind is very clear and calm. At this stage you still have some idea of the form of the body. And when sounds come, you can still hear them, although they may not be loud. At times they may be very loud or sometimes very blur. This is one lower stage of upacara samadhi.

But one can go further. When you say access concentration is close to absorption, it doesn't mean access concentration is weak. It can be very strong. Take for example a person, either he is watching the in- and out-breaths, or he is mentally chanting 'itipiso...', or he may be doing metta, spreading loving-kindness to somebody. After some time of developing the practice with mindfulness, with metta, with awareness, his mind will become calmer and calmer. When it becomes calmer and calmer he forgets about everything else. The mind becomes very soft, very quiet and very concentrated. It will at times become very light. And he forgets about the body, he won't feel his body at all. He won't be able to hear any sounds at all. He just knows the mind is very still and quiet either on the breath, or on sending loving-kindness to a person, or it might be a visualisation, a light for example. The mind does not move. The mind is very still, very quiet, he cannot hear anything, he doesn't know where he is. But he still knows that he is concentrated on the object. And if he wants to think he can; if he doesn't want to think he can, too. Often, in this stage, the mind is like one who is floating. It is like being half-asleep. But it is not really sleep. This still constitutes upacara samadhi, access concentration.

Thus, in the process of developing concentration, after reaching upacara samadhi where the hindrances have been put aside, one still has to go much further in the concentration before attaining the actual absorption, samatha jhana which we call appana jhana. In certain objects, you can see very clearly that they become finer and finer. Take for example, upacara samadhi, access concentration just before going into the first jhana and upacara samadhi just before going into the second jhana. Both are upacara samadhi but they are different in experience. And when you go to the third and fourth upacara samadhi, just before going into third and fourth jhana respectively, it is again different. The samadhi is finer and more still. The object also becomes much finer. So there are actually different levels of upacara samadhi which can be experienced.

We take an example from the kasinas meditative objects like colours, earth, etc. Let's say someone is doing a type of kasinawater kasina. Water kasina involves the visualisation of water. Before reaching absorption there arises what we call a nimitta, a mental sign, called uggaha nimitta. Uggaha nimitta is the 'grasped object'. That means it is a direct replica of what you see as water. When you can do that the mind is already very calm . Usually in this state you cannot be thinking here and there. This is because when you're thinking here and there you not only see water, you see other things as well. You may see fish inside the water or you may even see insects moving about. Sometimes you may see your friend swimming in the water and if you have craving arising, you may even see ladies swimming in the water! You may see them very clearly.

When you have the uggaha nimitta you see the water very clearly but the water may be moving. You see the water moving and the mind becoming one with the water. It is as if the mind is the water and the water is the mind. And it can be moving. At that time it is not very close to blissful absorption yet. It is still some way off. But if the mind can almost be one with the water and is sticking to the surface of the water, you cannot think of anything else. You cannot be having the idea of the body or anything. You cannot be hearing what is outside, you cannot think where you are either. At that time the nimitta is called uggaha nimitta, grasped object. It is upacara samadhi but not the one very close to the jhana yet. From here you can understand that the samatha concentration should be deep even before getting very close to the jhana.

Now if one is doing the water kasina when the uggaha nimitta arises, the mind is one with the object as if the mind is the water and the water is the mind. As the mind at this moment isn't yet completely still there will be movement. That means the water which is the mind and the mind which is the water are still moving. At that time you might find that it is a bit similar to the vipassana experience, but it is not the same. Another example is when doing the wind kasina, the stage is reached where the mind is like the wind and the wind is like the mindthe mind could be moving as if the wind is blowing. It is a bit like vipassana rising and falling, wind going up and down. But if you're sharp enough you know it is not the same.

As you progress and the concentration deepens, any movements within the object will stop, it will become very still. The mind which is the water and the water which is the mind become very still and very clear, completely transparent. Very bright. At that point the mind will approach a stage which is extremely clear and extremely bright. When that happens excitement sometimes comes up and the concentration is broken. At that point the mind goes into what we call patibhaga nimitta, the 'mirror image', which is very purified. This is now much closer to blissful absorption, first jhana. But still it is not yet absorption .

You will find that the process of upacara samadhi just before entering the first jhana or a matter of fact, the third or fourth jhana, differs in its fineness. For example, when going to first jhana it is like water moving and the mind is the water and the water is the mind. Then just before entering the first jhana, the water may be like a very clear round pool of water. But if you go to higher jhanas it will occur in finer stages. It becomes not just water moving but very fine droplets, like a mist, floating about. And just before entering the absorption (jhana) the object becomes very fine, pinpoint drops and you know that those pinpoint drops are moisture. So it is very much finer. The mind is also much finer and lighter.

This upacara samadhi can last long. You can sit for hours. It seems that people can sit for days. But it is still only upacara samadhi. In samatha you get very peaceful and very good experiences. There is no doubt about that. One can never say anything bad about samatha meditations. One can only praise samatha meditations. Only that they have to be properly learned, otherwise it can give rise to some problems.

At this level of upacara samadhi, because it is so peaceful and quiet, so happy and joyful, many things can happen. And because it is not so fixed like in appana (fixed concentration) it can sometimes lapse. Being so peaceful, it can lapse into sleep. For example, once when I was doing samatha the mind was very quiet and I knew I was sitting. I thought I had sat for five minutes only and was aware all the time, but when I turned to look at the clock it was already a few hours later. Either the sitting was very peaceful or that I could have fallen asleep. At times it's so peaceful and the mind so subtle that there is not much difference being aware or not being aware. It is just like you closing your eyes for a while only and already a few hours could have passed. In this type of samadhi it is very easy to slip off into sleep and you actually go into very, very deep sleep. And when you come out, if you're not careful, you may even think that it was nibbana. Because you may say it was cessation altogether, it was like you've gone to a void, there was nothing there. Or, you may think it was jhana, first absorption. But actually it was sleep. There is nothing wrong with sleep. Only when you start getting attached to it then problems come.

Besides sleeping there are other things that can happen. For example, at times there may be very strong joy that makes you feel like you are floating. Lots of joy and lightness may envelope one's mind and body and make them seem to disappear. When you come back to your senses you may recall, 'Oh! You've gone to a very peaceful and blissful state'. That is not jhana. It is still a kind of upacara, a kind of being completely enveloped in joy or happiness. Again, if you're not careful, you can get attached to it as nibbana or as jhana. There is nothing wrong with that bliss or that peacefulness. It is only when the attachment arises that problems follow. And it is very easy to get attached to such things.

In this access concentration for certain people, and certain types of meditation, a lot of nimittas arise. There arise what we call 'visions' or 'visualised images'. It may be things that you have seen before. It may be just nonsense. It may be, what they say, things from the past lives. It may be just fantasies. But usually the objects are quite clear because the mind is calm and peaceful. Especially in the beginning, they are very clear and nice. In fact some of them may be true. But inexperienced persons cannot differentiate so well as the concentration is not really deep yet. Little, subtle defilements quickly arise with visual images. And if you start to get attached to it: "I've psychic powers"; "I've divine eyes"; "I can see my past lives", "in my past life I was king of India", "in my past life I was emperor in China", then troubles arise. If you don't get attached, then they are just mental images that arise. There is nothing wrong with that, they will come and go. They may just be impressions from anywhere. But once attachment or fear arises, these images will not stop, they'll keep on continuing and continuing. Until finally you get total hallucinations. Therefore if you are into samatha meditations you are not encouraged to go into this at all until you have complete mastery over the mind, until you are one hundred percent sure whether these images are real or not. From here you may see that upacara samadhi is not just simple experience but actually covers a range of experiences.

There will come a point when the concentration is developed deep enough to enter what we call appana samadhi, the blissful absorptions, or fixed concentration. When this happens the mind changes into a different level, called rupavacara, the form-sphere. It is a jhanic sphere. This type of mind is totally cut off from what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. In fact it also cuts off from the normal type of thinking and awareness. It has been described by some people as a kind of deep sleep. But they know very clearly how they sink into the object and get completely absorbed in it. Once the mind absorbed into the object, they are completely unconscious at that time. But when they come out they will know the nature of the state of mind that has just passed and also the object that they were attending to. So even if you enter into the first absorption for one second you will know that for that one second you were completely unconscious. Only when you come out are you aware of the blissful state of jhana during that one second. Even if you go in for half a second you will know that for half a second you are completely cut off from the whole sensual sphere. Only when you come out from this half a second of concentration will you know how the state of mind was.

When you go into absorption there occurs a completely different level of consciousness. Therefore if you're meditating and that you may forget the form of the body, no thoughts and the mind is very still and blissfulthat is still not appananot the first samatha jhana. But that doesn't mean it's bad, it's still a good and peaceful state of mind.

It is very clear that in the absorption you are mindful. And sooner or later you may know after emerging, the nature of the object as going into absorption means that your mind is absorbed in the object. When the mind is completely absorbed in the object you know what the object is! Of course there are certain types of samatha meditation where the objects are very abstract. And when you first enter into jhana they may not be very clear, because they are very abstract objects that last only a very short time. But when you go in constantly and you go up to the third and fourth jhana they should be clear as well.

In certain meditations, like the kasinas and also the breathing meditation, anapana, where the object before absorption is very clear and bright, the object in which you are absorbed in is also very clear. As in the example of the water kasina and the access concentration of water kasina before the first absorption, it may be a completely clear pool of water which is very still. When you are entering into the absorption, it is like sinking into the wateras if you are diving and finally in the water. When in the water you don't know anything. But once out of the water you know how the mind was, how you were while under water, so to speak. This is a very clear and blissful experience, but you know how clear and blissful only when you come out of it.

For these types of absorption there are four rupa jhanas, that means there are four levels and each is different in character. In the suttas it is very clearly said that they differ in terms of jhana factors, called jhanangas. These are cetasikas, certain states of mind that are present and which play an important part in the respective jhana, absorption. For example in the first jhana the factors involved are: vitakka, vicara, piti, sukha, ekaggata. Vitakka is 'initial application'. Initial application is the force of the mind which brings it to the object. This is a mental force. Vicara, sustained application, is the force of the mind that is keeping it on the object, and is again a mental force, something like an energy. Piti is joy or interest. Sukha is a very happy feeling. And ekaggata is one-pointedness, that means when the mind is as if one with the object. These mental factors which are present in the first jhana play an important part.

But it does not mean that when you have these five factors you have the first jhana. Even if you don't have any concentration these five mental factors are already there. When you think of food, when you miss very much your food, or your 'Penang Laksa' there are also these five factors present , because the mind keeps running to the Laksa, it stays on it thinking 'how nice if I have Laksa', and then after that when you think of the Laksa you have joy 'when I had Laksa it was so nice, I was enjoying myself' and you feel very happy also and the mind is actually as if you could taste the Laksa, then these five factors are there but it is more like wrong concentration, greed.

You must know what the five jhana factors are to understand the jhanas. You must know at least something about Abhidhamma before you can have a clearer idea. These five factors actually describe a type of consciousness, a type of mind. When you know what factors are present you know what jhana you are in. For example, in the first jhana you have all the five factors involved. In the second jhana, you don't have the initial and sustained application, you have only joy, happiness and one-pointedness. In the third jhana, you have only happiness and one-pointedness. In the fourth jhana, you have only equanimity and one-pointedness. From the description I've given on the absorptions you definitely cannot know it while you are in the jhana. While you are in these absorptions it is like you are in deep sleep, you are in a state deeper than deep sleepso how can you know while in it? You know it only before you go in, because before you enter it will be clear which factors are stronger and which are weaker and have to disappear, or after emerging, through making of proper resolutions to reflect on the factors present. We will not go into this because it is not part of our topic.

What I want is to give you a good idea of what access concentration and what actually fixed concentration is in what we call pure samatha jhana, when we talk about first, second, third and fourth jhana as samatha jhana. According to our experience it is important to have a certain degree of understanding. It is because of a lack of this type of understanding that wrong views arise. You find that in the Brahmajala Sutta, the discourse on wrong views, a large extent of wrong views do not come through thinking or philosophies, they come from meditative experiences. Because people hold on to their meditative experiences as something which is true and good but which in reality is very false, it gives rise to many types of wrong views. For example, one of them is dittha dhamma nibbana dittha dhamma vada. Nibbana you understand, dittha dhamma is a present state, vada is a view. This is the view regarding the present state as nibbana. For example if a person gets attached to the jhana as nibbana then he goes into wrong views. Of course there is nobody who can argue with him because he thinks "I have experienced it and you not". At certain times entering into jhana is as if going into a void, the object becomes so subtle that it is very easy to fall into false views if one does not have a proper teacher. Even before going to the blissful absorptions one can experience many subtle states which can be misunderstood.

Therefore tonight's talk is to give you an idea so that you do not get attached to these experiences. If you cannot differentiate between upacara samadhi and appana samadhi, access concentration and fixed concentration, it's even easier for you to make a mistake between what is nibbana and what is not nibbana because nibbana is something more subtle and deeper than jhana. For example, when people are practising meditation and everybody starts saying, "I've got first jhana, second jhana, third jhana, fourth jhana, this magga-phala, that magga-phala", we don't say that they are wrong because we don't really know what their experiences are, but the fact that they are saying all these things so easily and so happily makes it obvious that there are attachments. And you can see sometimes when they say it, they are very proud of it. If they are actually attached to wrong views it is even worse. We hope that this will not happen among the Buddhists here.

If a person has really gone through all these practices he will know that it is not easy to know whether somebody has this jhana or that jhana, this magga-phala or that magga-phala. One would be very reserved in making such statements. Therefore, if somebody says all these things too freely, we don't say directly that he is wrong, we say, be very careful with him, you may go into wrong views.

A Dhamma talk by Venerable Sujivo
Kota Tinggi, Malaysia
January 1993

Source: Vipassana Tribune, Vol 4 No 2, July 1996, Buddhist Wisdom Centre, Malaysia